US immigration uses Google Translate to scan people's social media for bad posts – Er, don't do that, says everyone else

'Me encanta América... huh, so you're a terrorist?!'

Someone speaking a confusing language

Google recommends that anyone using its translation technology add a disclaimer that translated text may not be accurate.

The US government's Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) nonetheless has been relying on online translation services offered by Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo to read refugees' non-English social media posts and judge whether or not they should be allowed into the Land of the Free™.

According to a report from ProPublica, USCIS uses these tools to help evaluate whether refugees should be allowed into the US. In so doing, agency personnel are putting their trust in an untrustworthy algorithm to make entry decisions that may have profound consequences for the health and welfare of those seeking admission to the country.

"The translation of these social media posts can mean life or death for refugees seeking to reunite with their family members," said Betsy Fisher, director of strategy for the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP)," in an email to The Register. "It is dangerous to rely on inadequate technology to inform these unreasonable procedures ostensibly used to vet refugees."

IRAP obtained a USCIS manual through a public records request and shared it with ProPublica. The manual advises USCIS personnel to use free online translation tools and provides a walkthrough for using Google Translate.

Scanning social media posts for content that would disqualify entry into the US follows from a 2017 executive order and memorandum. The impact of social media scrutiny was made clear recently when Ismail Ajjawi, a resident of Lebanon admitted to Harvard's class of 2023, was denied entry into America by US Customs and Border Protection because of anti-US posts apparently made by friends.

After ten days of pressure from student petitioners and advocacy groups, CBP determined Ajjawi met its requirements for US entry after all.

To demonstrate the inaccuracy of Google Translate, ProPublica asked Mustafa Menai, who teaches Urdu at the University of Pennsylvania, to translate a Twitter post written in Urdu. By Menai's estimation, an accurate English translation would be, "I have been spanked a lot and have also gathered a lot of love (from my parents)."

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Google Translate's rendering of the post is, "The beating is too big and the love is too windy."

Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In response to a request from The Register for comment, USCIS spokesperson Dan Hetlage in an email said, “US Citizenship and Immigration Services understands the limitations of online translation tools. USCIS follows up with human translators as needed.”

The immigration agency defended its use of machine translation to ProPublica as "a common sense measure to strengthen our vetting procedures," and has said previously that resettlement decisions are not made on social media information alone.

Doug Rand, who worked in the Obama White House as assistant director for entrepreneurship and co-founded immigration assistance biz Boundless Immigration, in a phone interview with The Register, said, "USCIS is basically saying this is incredibly important to protect the homeland and we're going to invest absolutely nothing in the right tools and expertise to do so. Both statements can't be true." ®

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